Exciting drama from Grime poet Debris Stevenson ★★★★★
Poet in Da Corner is the semi-autobiographical tale of Debris Stevenson and how she was inspired by grime music to become a poet.
Although the word ‘grime’ suggests ‘grim’, in fact it’s not. It’s an uplifting, exhilarating story of an adolescent woman struggling with her dyslexia, her sexuality and her strict Mormon mother. The teenage misfit makes friends with a young grime artist who encourages her to be real in the way grime artists are true to themselves and their background.
I really warmed to these two friends who love and respect each other and who are trying hard in difficult circumstances. Debris Stevenson plays herself and Jammz plays her friend and mentor.
It’s a show full of tempestuous relationships, lyrical language, and a lot of humour. There’s a moment both shocking and funny when her angry but nonviolent mother slowly pours a gallon of milk over her brother.
The title is a reference to the seminal Dizzee Rascal album Boy In Da Corner that was the spark that lit Debris Stevenson’s fire. The play uses an imaginary character SS Viper who represents grime artists and Debris’ best friend at school. He sees her as privileged because she’s white and her mum makes her sandwiches for school lunch. As an adult, he berates her for appropriating grime- and his work in particular- when she’s not from a black disadvantaged background.
But in the course of the play we see how she used grime as a pathway out of her own disadvantages.
Viper takes her to task for leaving the neighbourhood and losing contact with him. She responds: ‘Helped other people cause I couldn’t help you / took responsibility with privilege too. / But I ran away from me when I ran away from you.’ How she develops and whether the rift can be healed is the subject of the play.
The set, designed by Jacob Hughes, is a bare stage that uses minimal furniture. In a Brechtian way, it is made clear the scenes from the past are being acted out for us and the present day adults comment on them. So we don’t get emotionally involved with the characters. But we do care about them and we see the world of disadvantaged working class kids from a sympathetic perspective- not the gangs, aggression and crude misogyny which is the tabloid image of grime.
The talented Stacy Abalogun and Kirubel Belay play the mother, brother and other parts in this exciting evening directed by Ola Ince. The evening ends with the audience dancing as Jammz performs his excellent song Lemonade Man.
I have heard songs by Dizzee Rascal and Stormzy but I couldn’t imagine listening to whole album or going to a concert because my ears find the 140 bpm and the heavy bass difficult. After seeing this show, I now have a new respect for grime and the artists who produce it and I appreciate the quality of the lyrics. There’s a singular quote from Dizzee Rascal that is used in the play: ‘The skies are all empty because the stars are on the ground.’
If you have the opportunity to see Poet In Da Corner as it tours, please do. Even if you think grime (or poetry for that matter) is not for you, do it anyway.
Janie Dee leads delightful revival of The Boy Friend ★★★★
Even when it was first performed in 1954, Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend appeared to hark back to a bygone era, a time of flappers and musical comedies, that preceded the then modern muscular realist musicals like Oklahoma! That it still appeals 65 years later suggests that the secret of its longevity is that it is set not so much in the past as in a world of its own.
This is a world where rich young English ladies attend a finishing school under the benign supervision of Madame Dubonnet, in which English reserve melts in the warmth of the Mediterranean sun and the charms of the French, and in which a little deception and misunderstanding are mere ripples on a smooth voyage to romance and happiness. Put simply, its appeal is that it offers us a utopian world of innocence.
There isn’t much plot to tell you about. A young heiress wants to be loved for herself not her money. She meets a poor delivery boy, they fall in love, but he’s not all he seems. Don’t worry it all works out. In fact, it all works out for everybody’s love lives.
Sandy Wilson could have tried harder to incorporate some less predictable twists or more plausible predicaments but that’s not the point. The point is, to escape to this fantasy world for a couple of hours and bathe in the brightness of the song and dance.
Romantic jaunty and poignant song and dance
Mr Wilson’s delightful songs aspire to Cole Porter and, while not actually reaching the great man’s heights, there is a lot of humour in lines like ‘The mere idea of living in a palace is, so full of fallacies’. Memorable numbers include the romantic I Could Be Happy With You, the jaunty It’s Never Too Late To Fall In Love, an unexpectedly poignant Poor Little Pierette and of course The Boy Friend. A quick word of praise here for Simon Beck and his live orchestra for driving the show at a jolly pace.
In the intimate space of the Menier, the kicks are so high and the lifts bound so far across the stage that people in the front row may need to duck. Among the many glorious dances, there’s an infectious Charleston performed by Gabrielle Lewis-Dodson and Jack Butterworth (both talented performers to watch out for in the future) and an amusing tango in which the couple come to blows while maintaining the moody moves.
The splendid chorus lines extend to the girls speaking in unison as they flirt with their potential husbands. In fact, given that choreographer Bill Deamer is listed as associate director, it is hard to say where his choreography ends and Matthew White’s direction begins. But all praise to Mr White for honouring the gossamer lightness of this musical while introducing enough down-to-earth physical comedy (with homage to vintage TV) to keep a contemporary audience happy. For example, when the stern French maid Hortense, played with gusto by Tiffany Graves, describes the demureness taught at the school while leaving her legs wide apart as she crosses them. Shades here of Kenny Everett.
Adrian Edmonson squeezes every laugh he can
There’s a touch of Benny Hill when Adrian Edmonson, once a Young One, appears as an old English lord, whose lechery is thwarted at every turn. It’s behaviour we wouldn’t expect to find funny anymore but in the world of The Boy Friend, even lechery is innocent fun and Mr Edmonson squeezes every laugh he can out of it. He even eats an ice cream lasciviously.
And he is just one of a terrific cast brought together in this Menier production. It’s led by one of the great musical stars of the older generation Janie Dee who steals every scene she’s in with her ‘Allo ‘Allo style French accent (another blast from the TV’s comedy past) and her knowing smile, especially when she seeks to rekindle an old romance with ‘Petit Percy’ played by an appropriately starchy Robert Portal.
And it’s a pleasure to see a star of the new generation Amara Okereke in the lead role of Polly Browne. Her sweet soaring voice and subtle acting convey both the strength and vulnerability of a young woman looking for love. Dylan Mason plays her suitor with fresh faced innocence.
Paul Farnsworth’s simple Mediterranean blue set is entirely appropriate and his 1920s style costumes are bright, elegant and fun.
You won’t come away from The Boy Friend feeling you’ve had a substantial meal but you will have enjoyed a superb sorbet.
Fairview by Jackie Sibblies Drury at the Young Vic
(4 / 5)
WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.Invited critics were asked not reveal twists but it’s impossible to review why this play is so powerful without saying how and why. I paid for my ticket so I feel free to discuss the whole play.
‘What are you looking at?’ says the wife to the husband right at the beginning of Fairview at the Young Vic. And that really is the question. What are we looking at? The answer seems to be a well-off African-American family preparing for a special occasion. But there’s something not quite right. Is Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play going to be a family drama set around a dinner party with bickering, jealousy and secrets such as we’ve seen many times over the years? Or is this more like a pastiche of a US sitcom? The set, designed by Tom Scutt, is so bright and clean and detailed that it could be made for HD TV.
The characters are black, yes, which in our world of middle class theatre is unusual, so we may anticipate that race is going to figure. Then again, these are middle class people. Shut your eyes and the characters could be any colour: the wife Beverly played by Nicola Hughes with a perfect mix of bossiness, insecurity and affection, the playful husband Dayton played with a cheeky likeability by Rhashan Stone, Naana Agyei-Ampadu squeezing all the comedy she can from the fashion conscious, faddy sister Jasmine, the sensitive rebellious daughter Keisha played by Donna Banya, plus, off stage, the unreliable brother hoping for a partnership in his firm, the daughter’s friend and the mother who won’t come downstairs. All very amusing but fairly predictable archetypes.
There are peculiar moments in this first act: the radio malfunctioning briefly, a tendency for the characters to break into dance, the daughter appearing in a spotlight to express her discomfort with the situation.
As if a brick wall has collapsed on you
Then we come to act two and everything changes. It’s as if a brick wall has collapsed on you. From here on in, we are in no doubt this is about race and we are looking at what it means to be black: the white gaze, the stereotypes, the cultural appropriation. Not that Jackie Sibblies Drury presents a simple lecture. Fairview is subtle comedy with many layers, presented with a unique theatricality and directed with flair by Nadia Latif. The twists are jaw dropping and lead you to question what happened in the first act and who these people are. So please don’t read any more if you don’t want to spoil those dizzying surprises.
Act two repeats act one but this time it’s acted out silently while the radio- maybe the radio- provides a commentary from four white people. Who are they? They could be the creators of the characters we are seeing or they could be simply ciphers for the white gaze. Anyway they digress into a discussion about what race they would like to be, each time coming up with stereotypical views of those races, ending with black, where they conclude they wouldn’t want to be the kind of middle class black people we are viewing because they are boring. It’s poor black people who are interesting- the rappers, the loud mamas. The voice who would like to be black remembers her black maid.
This does go on a bit but then there’s a delightful moment when the characters on stage, previously unsynchronised, segue into apparently mouthing what the voices are saying, even though we can remember that this wasn’t the dialogue from the first act. So, in a way, the characters come together in a prelude to the third act.
An uncomfortable evening for those ‘identifying as white’
Because, if that wasn’t enough, we then pick up story of the family and it’s not long before the characters we previously heard talking decide to come on to the stage to spice up this middle class family with black characters who are more ‘interesting’. So the missing brother appears as a rapper, although his sister is still asking how the partnership is going. The mother appears twice, once as the remembered black maid, a history Beverley contradicts. The white people confuse, question and provoke the black people. The black people object to being told what they are. It all ends in an amazing food fight.
Then in a final coup, the daughter invites those in the audience ‘identifying as white’ to come up on stage and see what it feels like to be in the spotlight. To not be ‘normal’, but instead to be focussed upon, expected to perform in a certain way, simply because of the colour of your skin. The actors leave the stage; many of the audience climb on to the stage including me. I’m uncomfortable with defining myself by race but I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to see the view from the stage.
It was an interesting experience. The lights are blinding. You can’t see the audience (or what’s left of it). You go from being an anonymous member of that audience to being the focus of attention. I tend to think that theatre is about letting you into other people’s lives or letting us see ourselves in different ways but this really took it from an intellectual exercise to a physical one.
Because Fairview is an American play, it wasn’t as much a punch in the guts for me as it clearly was to audiences when it first performed in the US where there is a history of slavery and segregation. Black people in this country have been and are subject to racial prejudice but they have never been divided from the white population. It would be much harder to write a play which involved stereotyping a black British culture.
A subtle layered comedy
Not that Jackie Sibblies Drury presents a lecture about racist stereotypes and cultural appropriation, except right at the end. If she did, I might be saying that she wasn’t telling us much we didn’t know already. Instead she starts with a middle class family, and thereby acknowledges that education and money are levellers. She subtly shows that even they are aware of what is expected of them which manifests as what you might call watered down stereotypes, a tendency to break into dance for example. She also presents the white people as stereotypes (the camp gay man springs to mind) which suggests that Fairview is not only about race.
I took from the evening a strong plea to take individual people as you find them- with a fair view- rather than imposing preconceptions or prejudices. Anyone could be a victim of prejudice if they are in an underprivileged or weaker group.
That’s what I came away with but this is such a good play that I think people, depending on their backgrounds and prejudices, will have come away with many different reactions. Even if you see it and decide, as some critics did, that Fairview is divisive or outdated, you will come out thinking and talking about it long after the audience have left the stage.
Fairview can be seen at the Young Vic in London until 23 January 2020.
Laura Wade’s play is funny, thought-provoking and exhilarating
(4 / 5) The Watsons starts as a fairly conventional adaptation of a Jane Austen story taking place on a lovely white set by Ben Stones.
Emma needs a husband and the question is, which of the three contenders will she end up marrying? Will it be for love or money? But this is an unfinished novel so we reach a point where the plot runs out and, suddenly, the author of the play steps in to prevent it going in an unintended direction. Played by Louise Ford, she’s a wonderful combination of determination and exasperation. From here on, it’s mayhem all the way.
At first it’s a conversation between the playwright Laura and the lead character Emma. Grace Moloney makes her totally believable as a typically intelligent witty Jane Austen heroine who takes the opportunity to figuratively (or, come to think of it, literally) rip off her stays.
Soon all the other characters are involved. Laura has a clear idea of how the story should develop but these are not her characters: they’re Jane Austen’s. They have their own ideas and Laura starts to lose the plot.
Thus we enter into an exploration of the creative process and, if that sounds a little dry, let me assure you it’s more like entering a flume ride. Many authors have talked about how characters take on a life of their own and begin to dictate the plot. Here it happens in front of our eyes. And of course the author, even though she’s called Laura, is a character herself created by the actual playwright Laura Wade.
The play becomes mind blowing as Ms Wade digs through the layers of implications and branches out in many directions to explore artistic creation and women’s experience.
She raises questions of free will and predestination. The characters are the creations of a God-like author but we living human beings also ask how much we are in charge of our destinies and how much our character seals our fate.
It’s partly an argument about whether you should conform or be true to yourself but when the characters put taking control to a vote, it also raises a cheeky referendum-related question of whether people should have a say if they don’t have all the information.
When the characters take charge, anarchy reigns. People behave out-of-character or perhaps as they would without the restraints of society’s rules, in this case a society created by the author. You see what I mean when I say this work is vertiginous.
A head-spinning triumph for Laura Wade
The Watsons is a head-spinning triumph for Laura Wade whose reputation is already high after her brilliant Home, I’m Darling. Directed by her husband Samuel West with a lightness of touch, the production makes the most of every opportunity for humour. There is a wonderful moment just after the characters have just discovered that they are in a play. When Laura steps through the fourth wall, as one they gasp and sway backwards.
You also realise that the significance of the white set is probably that the author hasn’t filled in the details.
There is the odd moment when the examination of the author’s own situation feels a little indulgent but The Watsons delivers a funny, thought-provoking, exhilarating evening.
Juliet Stevenson outstanding in Robert Icke’s exposure of populism
Dr Wolfe, played by Juliet Stevenson, prides herself on being logical and making medical decisions based on facts in a world of irrationality.
Hildegard Bechtler’s stark set is quite a contrast to the detailed oppressiveness of her design for Rosmersholm. Here you have bare pale walls with only a table and benches in the middle, very clinical and hospital-like but also reflecting the cool rationality of the main protagonist.
On this occasion she’s treating a 14 year old girl who has botched a self administered abortion and contracted sepsis. She’s going to die and Dr Wolfe wants her to die peacefully. A Catholic priest turns up expecting to give her the last rites but the doctor doesn’t want her patient disturbed.
Thenceforth this sparkler of an incident turns into a stick of dynamite as the doctor is attacked on all sides: by her colleagues who want her power reduced, by campaigners who seize an opportunity for publicity, by internet trolls who want to vent their anger.
An online petition condemning her gains tens of thousands of signatures from people who know nothing of the case. An anti-abortionist attacks her even though she didn’t carry out an abortion. People abuse her and accuse her of murder. Her Jewish parentage is invoked as a reason for her anti-Catholic behaviour.
Much of the play is about a rational person trying to maintain her position while being besieged by irrational, prejudiced people with their own agendas.
Robert Icke’s clever use of gender and colour blind casting
Writer and director Robert Icke cleverly uses gender and colour blind casting to wrong foot the audience. We don’t see why the doctor should be accused of prejudice until we realise that someone we thought was white was black or someone we saw as a woman is a man, thus underlining that it is the accusers who are prejudiced.
The doctor is drawn into defending herself and, under pressure, she reveals some prejudice in her own behaviour which leads to irrationality, but in unexpected ways.
Take language. Her pride in her rationality is illustrated by her obsession with the correct use of English. She picks someone up for saying ‘literally’ in a context where it means precisely the opposite. Later she is forced to acknowledge that language is fluid and subjective, when her enemies pick on a seemingly innocuous phrase as being racist because she used it against a black person.
She also freely admits that her practice of medicine is only the sum of today’s knowledge and could be seen as ignorant and like witchcraft in the future.
The original play on which The Doctor is based is Professor Bernhardi by Arthur Schnitzler. Written a hundred years ago it was a warning against the rise of populism and its use of people’s prejudices as a weapon. These days the tools may be different- social media and TV- but Robert Icke’s new version suggests the tactics of populists remain the same.
Juliet Stevenson gives a five star performance
The Doctor shows how frighteningly easy it is for the rational can be submerged by the irrational. Our protagonist gradually breaks down as she is engulfed by a nightmare. Juliet Stevenson gives a five star performance as she descends from the ramrod stiff leader at the opening through anger to desolation and tears.
The problem for me was that the plot seemed contrived. I didn’t believe that events would turn out this way. Would a senior doctor in dementia take on someone with sepsis from A&E? Would a TV debate really include an anti-abortionist when abortion was not the issue? Add to which, the other characters seemed like ciphers there simply to make a point.
The exception was the troubled young person staying with Dr Wolff and who has her private life exposed. only the other week The Sun published a repugnant story which used the name of famous cricketer Ben Stokes as an excuse to write about his parents and a family tragedy that happened before he was even born.Ria Zmitrowicz was convincingly nervous and vulnerable as she placed her trust in her substitute mother.
A lack of respect for his audience?
I was disappointed in one element of Robert Icke’s direction. There is a point where Juliet Stevenson sits on the front of the stage and has an important confrontation with another character. This was not visible from the Circle where I was sitting. I have worked in a 2000 seat theatre where the directors would go to the back and sides of each of the three levels to ensure that the actors could be seen. It would be surprising if, in a theatre as small as the Almeida with 360 seats and two levels, Mr Icke was unaware that hundreds of ticket buyers would be unable to see this crucial moment.
Remembering the theme of this play, I will admit that I don’t know all the circumstances and I’m not a director. Nevertheless I find it difficult to believe he couldn’t have moved this scene upstage a little. I’m not going to start a Facebook petition or a Twitter campaign but he does appear to be showing a lack of respect for his audience.
Robert Icke is a hugely talented director and while his final production as associate director of the Alemeida Theatre may not be his best, The Doctor is an imaginative, thought provoking work that generates a powerful performance by one of our finest actors.
The Doctor is performing at the Almeida Theatre until 28 September 2019 before transferring to the Duke Of York’s Theatre for a limited run from 20 April 2020.
(5 / 5) Prism at Hampstead Theatre (touring autumn 2019) is a double pleasure. It marks a welcome return for Terry Johnson, author of Dead Funny, Hysteria and Insignificance with his first full length play in ten years. And it gives Robert Lindsay the chance to get his teeth into a role worthy of his great acting talent.
Based on the life of the cinematographer Jack Cardiff, Prism tells a story of dementia. It shows us Cardiff’s uncertain grip on present day reality and, in a ‘wow’ moment of revelation, we get to see the world as he is seeing it – memories of his life in the movies. On top of that, we are given a fascinating insight into the art of lighting and treated to some magical effects.
Terry Johnson’s understanding of the art of theatre is peerless. He describes himself as a ‘dramatist’ and rightly so. Here he has directed as well as written this play and has created a pretty much perfect piece of theatre, which is ironic for a play about a filmmaker.
It has sharp dialogue, it’s funny, it’s poignant and it does things only theatre can do. There is a moment when, as the scenery moves, Jack steps from a location in his memory of the past to his present location but still acting out in his mind a past situation which we have already seen from the others’ point of view. It could only work in a live performance.
Robert Lindsay is one of our great stage actors
It’s a play full of metaphors for the process of growing old and dying. Cardiff fears blindness more than death but we realise the obliteration of his brain will be as bad. A prism is the key to making colour filming work just as the hippocampus is the key to a functioning brain. The ‘dying of the light’ as night approaches was Dylan Thomas’ metaphor for death: here it is literally the moment when you can no longer film.
Above all, this is an opportunity to see one of our great stage actors. Robert Lindsay has done a lot of work in light entertainment from the musical Me And My Girl to TV’s My Family to the recent stage version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. He has done it brilliantly but perhaps his ability to entertain us has made us forget the depth of acting of which he is capable. This is a timely reminder that his combination of rich voice, rugged good looks, timing and sheer presence are to be treasured.
Claire Skinner, Barnaby Kay and Rebecca Night all provide excellent support but the evening belongs to Robert Lindsay. I hope Prism gets a West End transfer. This is a production that everyone who loves theatre should see.
News added June 2019
Prism starring Robert Lindsay but with some changes to the rest of the cast is touring during autumn 2019:
Anne-Marie Duff adds Wow Factor to excellent production of Sweet Charity
(5 / 5)
Sweet Charity with book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields.
This would be an excellent production with any musical star but Anne-Marie Duff adds a wow factor. She may not be as good a singer or dancer as those who’ve made a career out of musicals but she can sing and she can dance and she brings to the part all the emotional depth of a great actor. You feel her pain and you feel her ecstasy, and her pick-yourself-up-and-try-again smile is infectious.
Charity is a taxi dancer in the 1960s. If you don’t know what that is (and I didn’t), it’s someone who works in a club where punters can hire them for a dance, and sometimes more. Charity believes in love. Despite being conned and let down many times, she remains an optimist and keeps looking for love. When things go wrong, she simply changes reality to suit her romantic view of love.
Ironically, despite being no virgin, she remains an innocent, which is the essence of her vulnerability but it’s also her strength. You could simply dismiss her as a naive fool, instead her way of seeing the best in people and not losing hope is inspirational. We want her to find love, even though we fear she won’t.
Anne-Marie Duff is perfect for the part. Her song-and-dance rendering of If My Friends Could See Me Now complete with a routine with a top hat and cane perfectly conveys Charity’s child-like unaffectedness. And her I’m A Brass Band is a joyous expression of what it feels like to be in love.
But it’s not a one woman show.
Arthur Darvill as Charity’s shy insecure boyfriend and Martin Marquez as a charming and charmed (by Charity) film star are both superb. Most of all there are the women who make up the rest of the taxi dancers. Their performance and reprise of Big Spender are astonishing. In the intimate setting of the Donmar where the audience is only four rows deep, these women saying ‘Let me show you a good time?’ is very personal.
The stunning choreography by Wayne McGregor, paying homage to the original work by Bob Fosse, evokes Cabaret and Chicago. Robert Jones’ set, a simple open stage with silvery props and furniture inspired by Andy Warhol’s 1960s Silver Factory, suggests Charity’s bright optimism in a harsh world.
What a way for director Josie Rourke to bow out as Artistic Director of the Donmar.
Sweet Charity can be seen at the Donmar until 8 June 2019
The Humans exposes the fears at the heart of a modern family
(4 / 5)
I love a family drama and they don’t come better than this. The Humans by Stephen Karam won four Tony awards when it was on Broadway. Now the original production directed byJoe Mantello has been imported with the same cast.
As a portrayal of a middle class family, it is spot on. Two parents meet with at their daughter’s new apartment in New York. Also in attendance are the daughter’s partner, sister and grandmother. The ensemble acting is terrific and they are absolutely believable as a bickering but loving family.
Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell are the mother and father disappointed by how life has turned out and frightened for the future of their family. Sarah Steele and Cassie Beck show a wonderful rapport as the sisters, both unhappy in how their careers are going. The partner could be there simply as a device to enable the family to explain what’s going in but Arian Moayed makes him a real character, nervous and desperate to please and placate.
A play about fear enhanced by a spooky atmosphere
This is a play about the fears that engulf so many of today’s middle class families- fear of failure, unemployment, poverty, loss of love, illness, dementia, death. You can see how these fears weigh physically on all the actors’ shoulders. They’re most manifest in the father, magnificently portrayed by Reed Birney, and they lead to a big revelation at the end.
The set designed by David Zinn is a realistic, naturalistic two floor gloomy apartment in New York which the couple have only just moved into. Their furniture has yet to arrive, so, although it is their home, it has a temporary, un-homely feel, like they could depart at any moment. This contributes to a feeling of spookiness that is ratcheted up by frightening noises from above and lights going out, suggesting darkness could descend at any moment.
All of this seems to say that while the causes of their fears may have names- the recession, globalisation, the technical revolution, ageing, and so on- these are forces as mysterious and uncontrollable as the gods and ghosts our ancestors believed in.
I found the play petered out a little at the end but I am so grateful to Hampstead Theatre for providing the opportunity to see this wonderful play.
Fun Home is a perfect musical- a joyous story driven by mystery and tragedy; songs with clever lyrics and catchy tunes that give an extra depth to the tale; characters you believe in and care about.
The musical is based on an autobiographical graphic novel by Alison Bechdel. We meet Alison as she’s in the process of creating her book. It’s an attempt to look back and understand how she tackled coming out and how her closet gay father came to commit suicide. As a song from early on says, ‘I want to know what’s true, dig deep into who and what and why and when, until now gives way to then.’
Although there is a central tragic event, this does not stop it being an uplifting evening.
Two younger versions of Alison take us through episodes of her life as today’s Alison narrates and comments. All the cast are tremendous singers and actors- Kaisa Hammarlund as the nervous narrator Alison, Eleanor Kane as the gauche teenage Alison and on the occasion I saw it, Harriet Turnbull as the troubled small Alison, displaying a skill rare in an child actor.
Jenna Russell plays the suffering mother and Zubin Varla is tremendous as the complex father. There’s also great support from Ashley Samuels and Cherrelle Skeete.
The songs, composed by Jeanine Tesori with lyrics by Lisa Kron, are by turns humorous, heartbreaking and, most importantly, totally integrated into the story. Perhaps it helps that Lisa Kron also wrote the book.
A quick word of praise for David Zinn’s clever set which is like an extension to the father’s character. It’s detailed when it needs to be, spins round as scenes change, and is bleak and blank at appropriate times. And there is a wow moment late on.
There’s a lightness and movement in director Sam Gold’s tender, funny production that give the still moments huge impact.
Fun Home is a touching look at the relationship between parent and child and a wonderful celebration of being true to yourself. It’s the kind of evening I always hope for when I go to the theatre.
This is the sort of night at the theatre I live for. Killer Joe was written by Tracy Letts, an actor who understands how theatre works and how to create great roles.
Despite all the sex and violence in the play, it is a moral tale. It’s reminiscent of Jacobean revenge tragedy with a nod to the claustrophobic overheated southern dramas of Tennessee Williams. In this case the claustrophobic set by Grace Smart is a convincing, trashy mobile home in a Texan trailer park. The intimate ‘cockpit’ of Traflagar Studio One really helps the oppressive atmosphere.
The literal trailer trash is very detailed and adds to the play’s recreation of the trailer trash lifestyle with its automatic switching on of Prozac television and Fast food diet. (One use of a fried chicken leg may have a permanent effect on how you view a bucket meal.)
The Smith family who live there are poor and ignorant which adds a layer of welcome humour but they could be anyone led by greed and a total lack of morality. They want someone close to them killed so they hire a hitman. Inevitably things go wrong and there are plenty of twists along the way.
In a series of scenes of sexual abuse which are uncomfortable to watch and shocking violence which is extraordinarily well done, we see what can happen when people are not controlled by morality or law.
Orlando Bloom is a revelation as a the smooth talking cold eyed sociopathic Joe. His sinister alpha male dominates the evening but each character is far more subtle than stereotypical trailer trash and every member of the superb cast seizes the opportunity to show a wide range of emotion.
Sophie Cookson is brilliant at walking the tightrope between being frightened of Joe’s sexual advances and, because she is used to being controlled, willing.
Steffan Rhodri as her father Ansel is a subtle mixture of bravado, cowardice, fear and excitement.
Her frantic, gullible brother Chris is the kind of person who always has a plan and the plan is never thought through. He’s a person adrift in a world he doesn’t really understand and that seems to be against him. He recognises feelings of love and regret but doesn’t know how to handle them. Adam Gillen conveys this with jerky body movements and looks of wide-eyed wonder as he realises what’s going on.
When we first meet her, she is confident, sassy which makes her downfall is all the more shocking.
Killer Joe is a unique theatrical experience. For example, there is no substitute for seeing someone hit in the face actually in front of you. The graphic fights directed by Jonathan Holby are incredibly well done.
Director Simon Evans keeps what could easily be an over the top grand guignol production under control right up to a beautifully choreographed violent finish.
The warnings about this production are many and it certainly is not for the faint hearted. On the matter of nudity, there are three instances. At the beginning, in one of the many humorous moments in the play, Sharla answers the door to her stepson Chris wearing only a top. Her pubic hair is clearly visible. When Chris complains, she responds by saying ‘I didn’t know who it was’.
Another occasion is a glimpse of Orlando Bloom’s bottom. By far the most shocking is a moment when Dottie is told to undress by Joe. He has his back to her but she is facing us the audience. It’s an unnerving moment which makes us feel complicit in this abuse, just as the Smiths have become responsible for much more than they bargained for in hiring this monster.
Finally a word about the excellent use of music by Edward Lewis, both his own unobstrusive mood creating music and his sinister use of known pop songs.
Killer Joe is a kind of pact with the devil and involves a sort of virgin sacrifice: the devil being Joe and the virgin being Dottie.